Summer days should be served hot..

 

Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!

All Hold Hands!

marlene palm

Well, this has been a dismal week that has led us a weary way to midsummer and to the Referendum. Strange auguries!¤ The scent of the roses has been blotted out by the constant rain: the inundation of the Midlands has been terrible. All I can smell are water and damp; bubbling drains, wet conifers and woody bonfire smoke.

“Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden..”

But things can go too far; get out of hand. It is more like October than June. The downpours have bleached the landscape to a uniform shade of dun, like very old cotton garments. I’ve been watching greedily the rose buds thicken and proliferate on the bushes since March and now they have burst indeed, but into only poor sodden rotting sponges. I’ve been waiting for the perfume of those Constance Spry’s for eleven months and now I’ve all but missed it. Like Ayesha, I must wait a small eternity for the pillar of living flame to come rolling round again.   “Chastening work, gardening!” – a terrible reminder of the vanity of human hopes. The only thing to hold onto is, that the garden ultimately rights itself in an eternal cycle, and certainly not solely by the agency of human hands.

Our hands! The hands that will duly inscribe the ballot paper on June 23rd now tie up the shattered lupins and collect the snails in a pail. Hands that speak a second language, and reveal in their marks and movements, their opening and closing, all the secrets of their owner’s character. What the Chinese admiringly call “orchid hands”.

And those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar…pale hands, pink tipped, like Lotus buds that float …pale dispensers of my Joys and Pains…”. Or, as it may be: dry, cracked and crinkled like autumn leaves or baby armadillos¤¤.

Hands – like our noses and sense of smell – are even more individual than we once thought. Pathologists can now identify a person by the whorls, flecks and lines on the back of a hand as definitively as by finger prints. And look at your palms, lined like miniature maps of the universe – the tracks of the stars and of your tears. “All human life is here”.

Years ago, long before I came to work at Les Senteurs, I lived for a season in Germany. An aged neighbour, with whom I used to drink Advocaat and eat Spekulos biscuits of a Friday evening, told me I had hands like the Madonna. I have never had such an extravagant – fanciful, even – compliment, before or since. The dear lady still had very sharp eyes: she must have seen something that neither I nor anyone else ever has. She also told me that during the War her husband – a relative of Chekov’s – had obliged her to wear a certain perfume simply because it was endorsed by the actress Zarah Leander for whom the late Herr Zirkenbach had had “ein Schwarm”.

We were looking at the shop the other day at a French phrase book published by the Daily Mail in 1930 – “Conversations of Real Use”. There is included a charming vignette “At The Perfumery”: interestingly, the vendeuse sprays the scent on Mme Dupont’s palm, not her wrist or the back of the hand. The fleshy palm (often a cannibal treat in times gone by) is an excellent reflector of perfume: it holds and disperses fragrance well and tenaciously. In addition, the palm is convenient and highly accessible for smelling while one is assessing the effect. And besides, if you wear scent on your palms, you will leave your exotic invasive imprint on everything – and everyone – you touch. A delicious memory, a fragrant echo left in your wake: an act of possessing – “I belong to Mme Bonaparte”.

It may well be that for us reticent British this is going just a little too far; a disconcerting act of intimacy. And I daresay the wrist is also a more practical and democratic area for testing: putting perfume on the palms is a bit like growing six inch Manchu finger nails. Unless you lead a life of complete luxurious leisure, the palms are going to be speedily corrupted by the countless smells of daily life, one rapidly succeeding the other. On the other hand, once your choice is made why not try the trick, at least for one enchanted evening? If you jib at spraying direct onto the hand – and, ladies! watch your nail polish! – then add your scent to a spot of unfragranced hand cream and so apply. I have been on the receiving end of this style of vampery: it is quite intoxicating. We are so sensitive to new smells that you only have to shake hands – at the very least – to seem subsumed in the other’s aura, drenched in their personality. ¤¤¤

You all remember what Chanel said – “wear perfume wherever you wish to be kissed”. The romantic novelist Elinor Glyn – the original identifier & curator of “It” – is said to have suggested to Rudolph Valentino that he kissed the palm of his leading lady’s hand rather than the conventional back. The result is well known – fans jumped into live volcanoes. Enjoy your perfume responsibly!’

¤ yesterday a great buzzard soared overhead in the vasty and briefly blue empyrean: now what does that signify?

¤¤ remember Madge, the outspoken manicurist of the Fairy Liquid ads?

– “Sorry I’m late, Madge, they were mending the roads!”

– “Looks like you stopped to lend a hand..”

¤¤¤ I am thinking of Dietrich’s hands exuding Youth Dew outside the Stage Door of the Queen’s Theatre: June 1972. (And see also today’s illustration, as above).

FEVERFEW

fever

 

When we were young the lilacs seemed to bloom all summer: nowadays they steal away so quick and crafty, like a thief in the night¤. One day, a froth of snow white, purple or mauve; the next, a creeping brown withered corruption.  But o! that brief enthralling scent: so addictive in nature, so rare in perfume. This is one of my favourite weeks of the year in the garden. Not only the lilac, heaped up like ice cream on green spear-shaped dishes, but the bearded flags in fragrant flower and the roses just about to pop – very abundant buds, this June, nourished with Lincolnshire horse manure. For a backdrop, the azaleas and rhododendrons in flagrant pink, apricot and crimson splendour. The thick powdery drunken scent of the may, the cow parsley and the new meadow grass combine with the more genteel herbaceous smells. Things seem to be coming right at last. The sweet smell of success.

I was poking about in an allotment sale looking for a cutting of feverfew to pot up. All the stall holders were talking about this weird horticultural year and the sense of disheartenment creeping in among their members: maybe more than that, almost a sense of dread. The times seem morbidly out of joint. Everyone’s patch ran mad during and after the warm damp non-winter and the slow cold coming of spring.

There’s nothing like a garden consistently failing to awake a sense of cosmic unease; it’s the tiny part of the universe you can be held accountable for. It is a miniature mirror of the greater world; and when it goes wrong panic may set in. We feel like our father Adam, confronted by the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and requiring an explanation. For we cannot control vegetation, only encourage and protect, advise and warn. This spring we’ve all been afflicted with late frosts, prematurely early lily beetle¤¤, an invasion of sinister and pernicious ground elder. Tulip and Dutch iris bulbs have been eaten by ‘A Something Underground’. You’ll have heard, no doubt, of the warning of an invasion of “slugs the size of rats”¤¤¤. Oh, and the clothes moths are back – in a big way¤¤¤¤

So….anyway!….this feverfew: it’s a modest plant, very ancient, of great prettiness and interest. It has brilliant green feathery leaves and white daisy-like flowers which go on and on all summer. For centuries the intensely bitter-scented foliage has been brewed as a remedy against headache, migraine and upset tums. It grows like a weed once you get it going, but of course, “c’est le premier pas qui coute” – and CAN I establish feverfew in my thick clogged unforgiving clay? I cannot. And the allotment gentlemen were unable to help me. A charming and very knowledgeable gardener said, “You’ll find no feverfew here!” And for a very interesting reason. He was highly allergic to it. His wife is a herbalist and had tied bunches of feverfew to dry on the clothes rack in the kitchen. My friend returned home at the end of a long day, came over funny and passed out. Next day: still sick and wonky. Tests were made by Doctor. It was the sour scent of the feverfew, which seemed to bring on the very symptoms that it normally cures. A kind of short-circuiting. I was enthralled – though I left the market empty-handed.

ferverfew-2
My other little adventure was with this wide-eyed racing pigeon which stopped off in my garden for a rest. Being a high-toned, delicately-reared bird it didn’t understand bread: I gave it sunflower kernels and some oats. But as the pigeon was still voracious I then crumbled some bread very fine and mixed the crumbs with the house budgie’s Trill. This pleased the visitor up to a point, though not wildly so. I laid the dish aside. Hours later: I am warming some baked beans for tea and find the dish of crumbs. “These will make a tasty topping” – I pop them into the mixture with a little olive oil. A surprisingly crunchy texture! I had quite forgot all the Trill. Well, no harm done – and an interesting new eating experience.

This pigeon kept making sorties like Noah’s raven and dove: finally, like the dove, she returned not. I hope she made it safely home and was warmly welcomed back into the loft. But I am never quite sure about the comings and goings of strange birds: I was brought up to see them as auguries. Well, we shall see.

Welcome to June!

¤ and apple blossom is even more fragile and transient: one of Dame Nature’s most delicious scents but the flowers are as fleeting as the lightest cologne.

¤¤ exquisitely pretty, like polished coral beads – but so deadly, cunning and merciless. A pair of beetles will destroy a fully-grown lily within hours. Squashing them is the only option.

¤¤¤ you can sometimes catch them with alluringly fragranced traps of beer or hollowed out orange rinds. A “honey trap”, indeed.

¤¤¤¤ take all your clothes out of their storage spaces. Bake them in the sun: either in the garden or at a sunny window. This kills the moth eggs. Moths and their progeny loathe and fear hot clear sun. Shake, shake, shake. Scour all your closets and cupboards. Repeat the process then lay garments up with appropriate herbal moth repellents such as artemisia, lavender, rosemary, thyme, patchouli. Camphor, too, if you can get it. Keep shaking, airing and checking at regular intervals. The whole business is so time-consuming and so nerve-wracking that you might consider excluding pure wool from your wardrobe or – at any rate – severely limiting it.

Autumn: In Your Garden

ATT22066

Autumn is full of excitement. This morning I was setting spring bulbs again and unearthed a huge mother toad in her burrow under the peony. (The peony that let me down, last summer: maybe the plant does not like the toad). The toad was pale yellow and fast asleep until I so rudely awoke her: she blinked at me like an old pug. I tucked her up again under the warm damp soil and leaves; and planted the Queen of the Night tulips in another spot. No wonder people used to think toads such witchy creatures. She was in exactly the same place twelve months ago: it must be her favourite nest and I shall not disturb her a third time. The whole garden has an invigorating fertile humus smell in this limpid late sun: there’s still the green bitter caper-tang of late-flowering self-seeded nasturtiums, pruned lavender and transplanted herbs in my new Medea patch. Especially fragrant is the delicious helichrsyum (“spirals of gold”) – the silver-leaved curry plant which to me smells more like bacon mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next year I shall plant it among the tomatoes for an explosion of savoury scent. What must surely be the last rose of 2014 is in fat pink bud beneath the wall.

Because round here we all shop at Wilkinsons the same horticultural novelties from that store tend to appear in all the local gardens. This autumn many of us have had a go at growing black sunflowers. Not actually black at all, these beauties are multicoloured in deep violet and bronze, copper and gold with leaves that look as though covered in dark verdigris. They glow in the sunlight and have a unexpected and delicious fragrance, reminiscent of cinnamon, dust, nutmeg and gingerbread. Here’s yet another flower that is all too often written off as scentless – along with the under-rated perfumed pleasures of petunias, daffodils, scarlet runners, iris and snowdrops.

The fallen apples don’t lie long enough to moulder and only a few neighbours have the pleasure of fermenting waspy pears and plums. I missed the wasps this year: there were hardly any despite all that heat. The gathered apples are safely indoors, laid on newspaper on trays and filling the dining room with a rich fruity earthy odour that is also curiously oily. In that terrible winter of sugar riots and power cuts (1971, I think) I slept in a house that came alive after dark. The husband, Crippen-like, shovelled coal in the shallow cellar so that the hall filled with bitter coal dust. The wife boiled up chutney: so much chutney! Night after night the sweet and sour vinegary currant and sultana sugar smells wafted hotly beneath my bedroom door, making my mouth drool involuntarily and setting my teeth slightly on edge.

Soon the great boilings of the orange marmalade season will be here; the pickling of onions has begun. A crisp sweet onion scented with pepper corns and a few cloves is an irresistible delicacy. I met a lady at the bus stop in a state of great indignation: one of our best-known supermarkets had told her there was “no call” for white vinegar these days. My old childhood friend Mrs Sarson used to tell my mother that if you peel onions on your knees, holding the bowl of a spoon in your mouth then your eyes will not water. Mrs Sarson was a great pickler and her husband went to his reward eating an onion. She said, ‘He sat there with the jar on his knee looking up at the sky. I says to him, do you think you’re going up there? And then he did..’

There are worse ways to go.